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Martin Luther Responds to Pope Leo X

Martin Luther Responds to Pope Leo X Censorship Civil Rights Famous Historical Events Law and Politics Trials Tragedies and Triumphs Visual Arts Ethics

On the 15th of June, 1520, Pope Leo X ordered Martin Luther to recant 41 of his 95 Theses and to stop preaching about those items in his sermons.  If Luther did not recant, said the Pope, he would face excommunication from the Church.

The Pope also ordered that Luther's works, based on the disputed points, had to be burned.

Luther responded to the Pope on the 10th of December, 1520. At a time when the Pope's directives were routinely carried out—at the risk of excommunication if they were not—Luther, the monk, followed his own path.

Standing near the Elster Gate, in Wittenberg, Luther publicly burned not only the Pope's order (a Papal Bull entitled Exsurge Domine) but also other Church documents with which he disagreed, including the Decretals of Clement VI, the Summa Angelica and the Chrysposus of Dr. Eck.

This image depicts an artist's interpretation of Luther's actions.  The oil-on-canvas is by Karl Aspelin (1857-1922).  It is entitled:  

Luther Burns the Papal Bull in the Square of Wittenberg Year 1520.

Luther believed that the Catholic Church needed a reformation. Two years before he burned Leo X’s order, he expressed his belief that such a reformation could not be led by a pope (either the current one or any future pope).

According to Luther’s own words (here, translated into English):

I wish to say the thing in a few words and boldly. The Church stands in need of a reformation; and this cannot be the work either of a single man, like the pope, or of many men, like the cardinals, and fathers of councils; but it must be that of the whole world, or rather, it is a work which belongs to God only. As to the time in which such a reformation ought to begin, He alone who created time can tell … The embankment is broken down, and it is no longer in our power to arrest the torrents which are rushing impetuously along. (Quoted in History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century, by J.H. Merle D’Aubigné, D.D., at page 102.)

It wasn’t that Luther despised Pope Leo as a person. He despised what the Church had become. As he noted, in 1518:

The times in which we live are so bad that even the greatest personages cannot come to the help of the Church. We have now a very good pope in Leo X. His sincerity and knowledge fills us with joy. But what can one man, though amiable and agreeable, do by himself alone? He certainly deserved to be pope in better times. We, in our day, deserve only such popes as Julius II [who commissioned Michelangelo to create sculptures, like the Moses, and create beautiful paintings, such as in the Sistine Chapel] and Alexander VI [born Rodrigo de Borgia who was infamous for fathering several out-of-wedlock children]. (See D’Aubigné, at page 103.)

Click on the image for a full-page view.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5155stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Dec 17, 2018


Media Credits

Image depicting Luther's actions, on 10 December 1520, described above.  Online, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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